Rape victims to get free care – Funding to come from fines paid by Michigan criminals

No longer will Michigan’s rape victims be handed medical bills as they leave emergency care. New laws passed in Lansing in December prohibit health-care providers such as hospital emergency rooms from billing sexual-assault survivors. Instead, providers can seek reimbursement from the state’s crime victims fund.

Other new laws will support and expand a statewide network of independent clinics that give free care to rape victims. Funding will come from a $7.50 fine tacked onto penalties assessed at the sentencing of anyone in Michigan who commits a serious criminal offense, starting this month.

News of the bills’ passage brought cheers from leaders of women’s groups, including Sue Coats, executive director of Turning Point, a nonprofit that serves Macomb County.

“We’re so grateful that Michigan is finally joining other states” in requiring that exams be free and in funding the free emergency clinics staffed by specially trained nurses called nurse examiners, Coats said.

Turning Point opened southeast Michigan’s first such clinic in 1999. It costs $160,000 annually to operate the clinic in Clinton Township that aids about 200 rape victims a year, she said.

Before it opened, police sent rape victims to hospitals, where they often were among the last patients seen by emergency doctors “because you’re not bleeding or having a heart attack,” Coats said.

“Afterward, they’d get a bill for anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000,” she said.

The nonprofit clinics offering free care — in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties, as well as about 15 other Michigan counties — have depended on unpredictable grants and donations, forcing dozens of Michigan counties to do without them, said Beth Morrison, executive director of HAVEN in Oakland County.

“This is going to help us continue, but it will enable others to start up,” Morrison said.

That pleases police and prosecutors because nurse examiners provide superior evidence, leading to more convictions, said newly elected Oakland County Circuit Judge Lisa Gorcyca, who for 10 years headed the Oakland County Prosecutor’s sexual-assault unit.

“These clinics are essential if we want to send a message” through convictions that deters would-be rapists, Gorcyca said.

The higher conviction rate was proven by new findings last month from Michigan State University.

Two days before state lawmakers approved the nurse-examiner funding bills Dec. 19, professor of psychology Rebecca Campbell presented results of a 12-year MSU study in Macomb County. Before the nurse-examiner program, 24% of sexual-assault cases ended with a guilty plea or conviction, rising to 29% after the nurse-examiner program began, Campbell said.

“That 5% jump may not seem like a lot, but it’s statistically significant,” she said.

The study reviewed 156 rape cases in the five years before the program started in 1999, and then 137 highly similar rape cases in the seven years afterward, said Campbell, the principal investigator.

Each case came from one of the five largest law-enforcement agencies in the county, and all were 1st- through-3rd-degree criminal sexual assaults — crimes of physical penetration that involve force or threat of force, Campbell said. She expects the study to be published by the National Institute of Justice and be distributed to law-enforcement groups.

The laws supporting nurse-examiner clinics passed the state Legislature at 4 a.m. on the last day of the 2008 session, after five years of legislative maneuvering, said State Rep. Marie Donigan, D-Royal Oak, the main sponsor.

“It’s just such a relief to get these things passed,” said Donigan, who lives a mile from the nurse-examiner clinic run by HAVEN in Royal Oak. The new laws are projected to provide about $1.6 million a year for the special clinics across Michigan, she said.

Sexual-assault nurse examiners are on call 24 hours a day, ready to give medical and psychological care to a victim soon after an assault while collecting such evidence as semen, DNA, skin samples, hair samples and photographs of injuries, said Diane Zalecki, supervisor of the clinic in Royal Oak, which serves Oakland County.

The clinic is in an unmarked house owned by the City of Royal Oak and rented to HAVEN for $1 a year, Zalecki said.

“We see people at pretty much the lowest point in their lives,” she said.

http://www.freep.com/article/20090104/NEWS06/901040393/1008/NEWS

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